For their many years of support of Pacific Lutheran University, Kurt and Pam Mayer of Tacoma recently received a special recognition award from the university.
Kurt recently concluded 10 years of service on the school’s board of regents, the only Jewish person to ever serve on the board. He was instrumental in helping the university continue to develop its Holocaust studies program, which focuses on Christian responsibility in the Holocaust, and has been involved in the school’s Raphael Lemkin lecture, encouraging attendance by the Jewish community at that event. (Lemkin, twice nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, coined the term “genocide.”)
Pam has worked for more than 20 years as a volunteer, supporting PLU arts and the School of Fine Arts board, on which she serves as co-chair.
Kurt, who is retired from his own construction business, tells me he didn’t take the regent position easily. A long-time resident of Parkland, the neighborhood where the school is located, he had been asked a number of times to speak to the Holocaust studies students about his experiences. (His family fled Germany in 1940, leaving on one of the last boats out of Italy.)
Finally, Mayer agreed to observe a class taught by professor and Holocaust historian, Christopher Browning. “I thought it would be a whitewash,” Mayer says, but to his surprise Browning “made no excuses for the church or Christians” and did not engage in any revisionism.
Mayer agreed to speak, and spoke every year for almost 12 years. During that time he was also invited to serve as a regent. He was incredulous at first, but decided to make it a learning opportunity, and accepted.
“I think it’s been good for the Jewish community,” he says. “I feel I made a difference just by being there.”
The Mayers have been active in Temple Beth El for many years and their two grown children and their children also belong there.
Mayer still continues to speak out about the Holocaust and against revisionism.
“Considering the enormity of the crime it took an adult mind to understand it,” he wrote me in an e-mail, “but what affected me most was the loss of my grandfather at Thereisenstadt and my grandmother and favorite aunt who probably died in either Sobibor or Belsec. No one knows, since there was not a single survivor of a train with about 3,000 people.”
In 1994 he attended a reconciliation ceremony in his hometown, a decidedly mixed blessing.
“Unless you’ve lived through it,” he believes, “you can’t really explain it.”
Ironically, Germany today has the fastest growing Jewish population of any European country, and possibly any country outside of Israel, mostly due to immigration from the former Soviet Union, encouraged by the German government.
It was widely reported earlier this year that three rabbis were ordained in Germany, the first since World War II.
“There are 120,000 to 200,000 Jews in Germany, and only 20 to 30 rabbis for the whole country,” Paul Strasko tells me. That is why he and his wife, Sandra Andrews-Strasko have one-way tickets to Germany this summer. They are planning to emigrate from Seattle to Germany, where Paul will study for the rabbinate at the Abraham Geiger College, the first liberal rabbinic seminary in continental Europe since 1942.
In the meantime, they are working hard and trying to raise funds to help pay for Paul’s education. Sandra is part-owner of an organizing business, Empty Your Nest, and Paul is a project manager for a small software company, which, he says, “makes me an average Seattleite.”
“I’m probably the only person in the country who’s given two year’s notice,” he adds, saying that his boss, who is Jewish, has been wonderfully supportive, even writing a recommendation.
Paul studied music composition and wants to put that to good liturgical use. He’s already started composing pieces he hopes will be used by the Reform movement in Germany, which has its own prayer book.
“Those congregations are trying to figure out what music to use,” explains Paul. “German music from 100 years ago? Israeli music? American music? If I can add even a little bit to that, I’ll be happy.”
Paul, who converted to Judaism a few years ago, has been active at Temple Beth Am. He considered the rabbinate from the time of his conversion, thinking he would wait five or 10 years, but Sandra encouraged him to start sooner.
Sandra has a strong connection with Germany, too. Her mother was German and she was raised bilingual. She has a lot of family in Germany, whom she and Paul have visited, and she has studied there twice, first in 1997 and then in 1998 when she returned as a Fulbright scholar.
Sandra is also a convert and says those years in Germany were “part of that whole journey that brought me to being a Jew.”
Her German family, she explains, is very accepting of her religion.
“Germans are hungry to learn about Judaism; they’re excited about it.…Judaism was such an important part of Germany for over 1000 years.
“They want people to come back,” she continues, “to grow and heal.”
Read more at Paul’s Web site,